Skip to main Content

New IPCC report reaffirms reality of climate change – so what now? | Blog by Damian Ryan

30 September 2013
New IPCC report reaffirms reality of climate change – so what now? | Blog by Damian Ryan

The Climate Group's Senior Policy Manager, Damian Ryan writes about what businesses, organizations and governments need to do now the new IPCC report has been released, reaffirming the dangerous reality of climate change.

There is no doubt a certain amount of ‘I told you so‘ vindication felt by many in the climate community following the release last week of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

That was certainly my gut reaction from reading the 36-page Summary for Policymakers (SPM), which condenses the key findings of a 1000-page technical report that has been five years in the making.

The SPM, which handily highlights the key messages in a series of boxes (hint: an easy read for even the busiest executive!) pulls no punches. The assessment of the world’s climate scientists is clearly both rigorous and robust and its conclusions compelling.

In short: the world is unequivocally warming;

  • each of the last three decades have been successively warmer than all preceding ones since 1850;
  • the oceans have absorbed 90% of this heat (explaining in part why surface temperatures have plateaued for the last 15 years);
  • the icesheets in Greenland and Antarctica have been losing mass;
  • sea levels have risen 0.19m since 1901;
  • and atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are at levels not seen in 800,000 years.

And the killer punch? Humanity is the cause of all these planetary woes.

But in reality, this is old news. We knew all this six years ago when the last IPCC Assessment report was released (the AR4). The AR5 has simply increased the certainty and understanding that scientists have about the causes, impacts and likely trajectory of climate change.

So is the AR5 an unnecessary effort then? Far from it. As the likes of HSBC have commented, the release of the AR5 (which is actually comprised of three separate reports, today’s one on the physical science of climate change just being the first) creates the momentum for substantive, public discussion in business, politics and the media, which can help drive action. The AR4 and its predecessors did exactly this.

But as others have noted last week (see for example Clive Hamilton’s excellent article) winning the argument over climate science is immaterial if it doesn’t result in changes in the real world. On this count we remain a long way from where we need to be.

Communication about the AR5 will be as important as its content. Here I think there is still a battle to be won or lost. The good news is that the climate scientists have clearly learnt a lot since the ‘Climategate’ fiasco in 2009. Then, an ill-prepared scientific community was mauled by sections of the media following a clearly orchestrated attempt by groups (often unknown) to discredit certain climate science findings. By contrast, it seems that the climate skeptic crowd have been on the backfoot this week, given the clear message in the mainstream media about the reality of a warming planet.

However, this improved media savvy-ness in communicating the science will only count if it is accompanied by a broader, positive message about solutions. A comms strategy based on the negative impacts of projected changes simply isn’t going to resonate and inspire action by businesses or the public. Substantial and transformative change will occur when people are excited by and can clearly see the financial, technical, social or political opportunities that ambitious climate action can deliver. The good news is that such action is underway but requires scaling.

Reframing of the AR5’s key findings in terms of risk will also be important. Research by academics at Oxford University suggests that familiarity with the concept of risk in other areas e.g. insurance, health, security, makes it easier for people to appreciate the implications from climate research. Leading figures, such as the UK economist Lord Nicholas Stern, are already using this language. More need to follow this lead.

The remaining two volumes of the AR5 will be released in March and April. These cover ‘Impacts and Vulnerability’ and ‘Mitigation’ of climate change respectively. Collectively, these three volumes of the AR5 need to reinvigorate our collective effort to address climate change. Failure to do so will come at a significant cost and squander an even larger opportunity. There will be nothing to celebrate from such a future; ‘I told you so’ will have a hollow ring and a bitter taste.

Related news:

"Humans are dominant cause of changes in the climate system": IPCC scientists in Climate Week NYC livestream

Damian Ryan: Leaders must be climate science champions

"This is yet another wakeup call": In response to IPCC Secretary Kerry says US will transform energy economy, lead on climate


Latest from Twitter